Are Kids These Days Really 'Wrapped in Cotton Wool?'

Updated: Nov 28, 2018

We hear it all the time: "Kids these days just aren't the same anymore. They just stay indoors, playing non-stop computer games rather than going outside, and climbing trees, like I used to do back in my day!" - Anonymous Grandfather

But is this really true? Are the next generation of children growing up 'wrapped in cotton wool?' Are kids nowadays missing out on vital early childhood lessons that can only be learned through active play outside? And are the next generation still developing the diverse skills, healthy habits and overall resilience required to grow into healthy, happy young adults?

"Kids these days just aren't the same anymore. They stay indoors, playing non-stop computer games, rather than going outside and climbing trees like I used to do back in my day!" - Anonymous Grandfather

Back to the Future

These are all undoubtedly important questions. But first we need some context and a little modern world history. I was born in the mid-80s and was among the first generation in which computer games really took off big.

I can remember in amazing clarity the day I got my first games console, the Nintendo 64. It was Christmas Day '97 and I was just 10 years old. Playing in my pajamas on the sofa, with our family Christmas tree in the background, and my brother sat next to me, I began to load Mario Kart. Within 24 hours of playing, I was hooked and so was my younger brother! Even my Grandparents were eager to give it a go!

Mario Kart, Zelda and James Bond were among my favorite games at the time. Before long, I was proud to boast I'd successfully completed every level, every scenario and every trophy (including the bonus levels) on these classic, and at the time, cutting-edge video games. But the question is: Did I still go outdoors to play with my friends? Did I still play soccer until dusk in the local park? And did I still ride my bike for hours on end just for the fun of it? The answer to these questions is an emphatic "YES! YES! and YES!"

The truth is, I was just as excited to play outside with my neighborhood friends, as I was to play on my Nintendo 64. I spent countless hours with friends playing hide and seek among the green spaces of our local park, countless evenings playing soccer together and heck knows how long we rode our bikes around aimlessly until dark, trying to master bike tricks like wheelies and endos!

During my childhood, my parents barely had a second thought about me playing outside with my brother, or rollerblading around the neighborhood streets after school with my friends.

A Healthy Upbringing

So have we lost our way in modern society? Do our children generally still grow up having a healthy, active and balanced upbringing?

The truth is both yes and no, and it runs a lot deeper than mere computer games. Let me explain what I believe is happening. During my childhood, my parents hardly had a second thought about me playing outside with my brother, or rollerblading around the neighborhood streets after school with my friends.

On my way out of the front door to play, they'd say things like "Remember, don't speak to strangers!" and "Be sure to look both ways before you cross the road!" as well as other occasional sound bites and words of wisdom. But as long as we came home before dark and in time for dinner, it was business (or adventure) as usual! So what, if anything, has changed?

The Rise of Screen Time

One big shift we are now seeing is the amount of 'screen time' children now spend on electronic devices. Recent research in Britain has revealed that 11–15 year-olds now spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen, around 7.5 hours per day! Indeed, in just a decade 'screen time' among British youngsters increased by 40% (between 2007-2017)! But why? Is technology to blame or is something else going on?

Well, let's not forget that technology brings many benefits to children, not least the ability to access information about the natural world. And while it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the lure of screen-based entertainment is the main reason why children rarely go outdoors, it may actually be a symptom of what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods refers to as ‘well-meaning, protective house arrest.’

Protective House Arrest

So are children becoming prisoners in their own homes? Well, the statistics would seem to support that view. In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%. In 1971, 80% of seven- and eight-year-olds walked to school, often alone or with their friends, whereas two decades later fewer than 10% did so – almost all accompanied by their parents.

Together with the rise of smart devices, computer games and the rapid emergence of social media in recent years, I would argue there are two other key reasons for the declining trend in outdoor play. The first is an increase in perceived risk by parents of their children being hurt or fatally injured in tragedies like car accidents, or being abducted by strangers. A recent OnePoll survey of 2,000 parents in the UK revealed that 62.7% of parents believe there are greater dangers of children playing outside now, than when they were children. However, crime statistics in the US show that the risks of accidents or kidnapping are no higher today that they were 30 years ago. That's not to say there aren't areas in our cities where children would be at serious risk of roaming due to issues like gang-related crime, and ill-advised to venture out unsupervised, but, truthfully, hasn't this always been the case?

"A recent OnePoll survey of 2,000 parents in the UK revealed that 62.7% of parents believe there are greater dangers of children playing outside now, than when they were children."

The second reason is nowadays parents are tending to work longer and harder on average to make ends meet, due to reduced job security and rises in the cost of living in many developed countries. Now more than ever, many parents are forced to rely on professional childcare services and after school clubs, whether they like it or not, to keep their children safe and occupied after the school day ends.

Shifting Social Trends

Combined, these shifting social trends mean that parents not only believe it's much more dangerous for their children to play outside unsupervised in public places (even though there appears to be little evidence to support this view), but many also face a daily battle to balance their day jobs with cooking healthy meals, doing the daily chores and giving their offspring the love, stability and support they need to grow into healthy, active young people. So perhaps it's no wonder that for many, 'screen time' has tended to fill the void, and with it, a child obesity epidemic has swiftly followed.

But what can we do about it? To find out more on this, check out my latest blog post on health and wellbeing in outdoor learning and the human need for interaction with nature.

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